Water was everywhere in Benson Gymnasium on Wednesday morning—not actual water, but tri-folds, posters, interactive displays, drawings, and other materials created by sixth graders for their Independent Water Projects.
The projects represent the culmination of the grade’s year-long humanities focus, The World and Water. Students spend the year working to develop an understanding of humanity’s relationship with water, and the various conflicts and opportunities that water provides.
Sixth-grade humanities teacher Sarah Cohen explained the year-long progression that led to Wednesday’s presentation: “This fall, we learned about databases and were introduced to the phenomenal resources that are housed in our library. We learned how to use library resources and the importance of using reliable sources to seek answers to our many questions.” Over the winter, she continued, the grade extensively studied Northern Atlantic right whales, gathering data, connecting with scientists, reading articles, studying particular whales, and using the 3D printers in The Revers Center to re-create models of right whales.
In the spring, students held a “water walk” on campus, raising awareness of the issues around water. And finally, for their capstone projects, students chose one aspect of the global water crisis as their focus and spent a month doing a deep dive, as it were, into the subject. “Students selected a location that interested them, identified a freshwater body that supported the region, and learned how humans rely on the waterbody and have impacted it over time,” said Cohen. Wednesday’s event brought a display of their work, with the sixth graders on hand to explain and discuss their projects with parents and faculty members who strolled through the exhibit, peppering the students with questions.
Students were well prepared to field those questions. On topics ranging from the desertification of Australia to mercury pollution in the Amazon to water scarcity in the Colorado River, students had spent several weeks exploring the causes, the ramifications, and the solutions.
Ryann Benjamin had chosen Amazon pollution as her topic. She found herself intrigued by the subject because the idea that the river is tainted with mercury runs counter to most people’s perceptions of the remote Amazon region. And it’s significant, she said, not just because the mercury is harmful to local flora and fauna. “It also makes its way into the food chain and into humans,” she noted.
Carter Meyer studied water scarcity in the Colorado River. “The big issue is that there’s not enough water to supply the millions of people who need it,” he said. And, like Benjamin, he learned that the implications are far-reaching, as farmers struggle to water crops that feed people far from the river. “It’s hurting everyone,” he said.
EJ Kim found his topic, the desertification of Australia, to be an eye-opener. “I had no idea it could happen in Australia,” he said. “When you think of the desert, you think of Africa, or the Southwest.” The causes are easily identified: out-of-control fires, climate change, deforestation. But, he said, one of his main takeaways is that the problem can be addressed: Groups are working to plant trees, battle invasive species, and raise awareness.
To Cohen, one of the most valuable aspects of the projects—and the entire year-long curriculum—is the sense of empowerment and agency the students experience. “These projects celebrated the synthesis of joy, inquiry, and knowledge-building that are intrinsic in this particular group of learners,” she said. “I am fueled and inspired by their curiosity, drive, and passionate interest in making positive change. Our sixth graders are the answer to our essential course question, ‘How do the actions of one person positively change the world for many?’ ”